Douglas Murray speaks at the 2024 Alexander Hamilton Award Dinner, hosted by the Manhattan Institute. (Photo courtesy of MI)

Douglas Murray: What It Means to Choose Life

Last Monday, our columnist received the Alexander Hamilton Award for his ‘unwavering defense of Western values.’ Watch and read his brilliant acceptance speech.

It’s my view that none of us comes into the world fully formed, by any means. I want to take a moment to mention the fact that there are many people in this room here tonight who’ve helped to form me. You all know who you are, and I’m not going to name names or hold anyone personally responsible. I’m also very deeply honored to receive this award because the list of previous honorees includes so many other people whom I credit with part of my intellectual evolution—not least, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, William F. Buckley, and Tom Wolfe. I’d also like to cite a fellow émigré writer to this city, who’s no longer with us but who made a huge impression on me. And I know Ayaan [Hirsi Ali] had the enormous honor of meeting the great Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci.

I mention her because she wrote a great book about the war in Vietnam called Nothing and Amen, which starts with one of the best lines that I know of in any book. It opens with her niece, a young child, asking her a question: “Life, what is it, Oriana?” And the next sentence is “The next morning, I went to Vietnam to find out.” Now, it seems to me that the nature of being a writer is to get to the essence of things, to get to the nature of things, to try to work out life in its totality, whether that is—as I’ve done recently—writing about the fentanyl epidemic in this country and all the monstrous things that come from it, or from the many war zones I’ve reported from. The purpose, I suppose, is to try to get to the truth.

Click below to watch Douglas give his speech, or scroll on to keep reading the transcript:

And the truth is not just an abstract thing but specifically a truth about ourselves as human beings. I suppose that in that case, it’s inevitable that a writer would be drawn to war because war is, in some ways, the ultimate subject: it shows us human beings at our very worst and also at our very best. A couple of years ago, I was reporting from Ukraine with the Ukrainian armed forces as they were taking territory back briefly—all too briefly—from the Russian advance. I always think of the woman I wrote about in my column in the New York Post: this woman of 28, a beautiful blonde woman whom I met at the very front line. It was in the cold of November, and she had given birth to her first child the month before the Russians had invaded. And I asked her, “What did you do?”

She said, “I gave my child to my mother in Kiev, and I haven’t seen her since. There’s no rotation. We don’t have the luxury of rotation in the army at the moment.” I think of all the people I’ve seen in Iraq, Ukraine, northern Nigeria—where the Christians are under such terrible and almost ignored persecution—and many other places. But I’ve never seen as much of the best and the worst of humankind as I have in the past six months in Israel and Gaza. I was here in New York on October 7. On October 8, I went down to Times Square, where there were men and women waving signs celebrating the massacre of the previous day. They weren’t calling for a two-state solution. They weren’t saying that we’d awfully like to do some borderline territory swaps in the West Bank. No, no. It was all celebrating the massacre.

Some of them were holding these signs in Times Square saying, “By any means necessary,” at a time when we already knew what those means included—and, in fact, when the massacre was still going on. I thought then—and I said this in the Post—that a few things were obvious. The first was that I had to get to Israel as soon as I could. The second was that we were going to see a kind of Holocaust denialism in real time, and therefore I thought I should see with my own eyes everything that had happened, everything I could see. And the third was that I noticed already what I had said shortly after October 7: that there are some times in your life when a flare goes up and everybody can be seen precisely where they’re standing. That seemed to be exactly what had happened.

I went straight to the sites of the massacres, to the hospitals where the wounded were recovering. I won’t give you all of the—or even any of the—terrible stories you can hear. From there, I joined the experts—I joined the pathologists in the morgues of Tel Aviv as they were trying to identify the dead, an unbelievable task, which they do with extraordinary delicacy and religiosity, actually. I spent a lot of time with the families of the kidnapped and with the survivors of the Nova party. But I also had the great opportunity to witness firsthand Israel’s response—because unlike some countries today, Israel doesn’t just sit back with equanimity when it’s attacked, much as some of the world would like it to do. 

I saw one of the fences that the terrorists broke into on October 7—and I thought immediately, as well, [that] after the seventh, people aren’t going to realize the scale of this: this was a 4,000-person battalion-size terrorist attack that aimed to go all the way up the center of the country. I felt rather proud, actually, to go back through that fence with the IDF when they were going into Gaza in search of the hostages.

I saw the tunnel networks that Hamas has spent all these years building with your money and mine. I have a friend from the British Army, Colonel Richard Kemp. One day, we were standing beneath one of the tunnels that Yahya Sinwar had built—he’s the mastermind of the attacks on the seventh—and which he had been videoed going through. I said to Richard, who, like me, is a fan of dark humor, “This is about the size and width of the London Underground.” And he said, “Yeah, and I hear it’s even longer than the London Underground.” I had the opportunity to say, “And I think it’s rather better run.”

I suppose I can say, as much as anyone, that I saw it all. On the day I left Israel, a few days ago, I was the first person allowed in to see the Hamas terrorists who’d committed the atrocities of October 7 in the prison cells in which they’re held. I mention all this, really, to say, what do I make of all this? I’m going to quote Scripture.

I think often of the line from Deuteronomy when God says, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants might live.” And I think also of the psalmist who said, “I shall not die, but I shall live.” Because when I think of October 7 now, I don’t think only of the victims; I think of the extraordinary heroes. And I want to mention them to you above all. A young man, a friend of mine in his thirties, woke up in Jerusalem on October 7, realized the seriousness of what was going on, got into his car, drove south, collected some guns, left a farewell message to his children and his wife on his phone. 

On the road, he got a call from his company commander, saying, “You have to come back to base in Jerusalem. And he said, “No, we are needed in the south now.” And his battalion commander said, “Are you defying an order?” He said, “Yes, I’m defying an order. We are needed in the south.” And he fought for the next forty-eight hours and survived. 

I think of my friend Moshe, whom I’ve had the great good fortune of being with for many months. He’s now my cameraman and was from the beginning. The first day we were together, we donned our battle armor and helmets on the Gaza border. And I noted that Moshe had a bullet mark down the top of his helmet, and he hadn’t mentioned anything about it. I asked, “Where’s that from?” He explained that it was from October 7. Every Saturday, he would go down to see a friend of his—who was also in the media—in Kfar Aza, and he drove right into the middle of the firefight on the highway.

He got out and fought and killed three terrorists with his own gun that he carries with him, thank goodness. He fought for the next two days. And he doesn’t expect any applause from it or anything like that; he just did what he had to do. I think of the extraordinary Druze men who provided the food at the Nova party and whom I met a few months ago, some weeks after the atrocities, and who described to me not just what they’d seen at the party—which the world was already trying to deny—but what they’d done. They didn’t see themselves as heroes at all, but because they could understand Arabic, they saved many young Jews that morning. I asked them, “Why, among other things, did you do it?” They’re proud Israelis, they’re Druze. They said, “The Hamas hate us even more than they hate the Jews.”

I think of the Muslim doctor whom Hamas held as a human shield at one point in the morning. Even after being wounded, he saved the lives of other Israelis. I think of the extraordinary people of the United Hatzalah, a sort of first-responders unit: they all get an alert on their phones. They all go off and address a car crash. I spoke to the head of that organization in Jerusalem. He said, “In thirty years of doing this job, the whole thirty years altogether wasn’t like one minute that morning. The lights just went off everywhere.” And I think of a young woman called Adi Baruch. She was 23, and I was with her family in December in Judea and Samaria. She was a beautiful girl, a photographer—she decided that she had to go and reenlist after October 7. And she did. Her parents begged her not to, but she said that she had to. She was killed on her first day by a rocket that landed on her in Sderot. Her parents shared with me the note that she’d left for them, in case she didn’t make it. In it, she said, among other things, how sorry she was, but she said, “I wanted to live life, and now I want you to live it for me.”

I think, finally, of an extraordinary evening in November last year. I was at the Schneider Children’s [Medical Center] when the helicopters came, returning the first hostages, the first children whom Hamas had stolen from their homes in the south. We’d been waiting for them for two days. There were two days of thwarted exchanges, where Hamas deliberately eked it out and eked it out—more and more torture for families. But when the helicopters emerged—there were two of them, and they emerged in the night sky. The people of Tel Aviv realized what was happening, and every car stopped. I was standing right on top of the hospital, and every single car in Tel Aviv stopped. Suddenly, I noticed applause from the citizens, the Tel Avivians. Then there was singing, singing all the way through the streets of Tel Aviv. I asked my cameraman, “What are they singing?”

They were singing a song, “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem”—“We brought you peace.” I learned afterward from speaking to the helicopter commander that there was intense competition among the helicopter pilots to have the good fortune and honor of returning these children home. Now, there are millions of stories like this across Israel. The country rings with them, it resounds with them. It makes me think a lot about home, my home here in America, my home in the UK. There have been polls over the last couple of years asking Americans and British people, “What would you do if your country was invaded?” Two years ago, when Ukraine was invaded, there was a poll here in the U.S. that found—I don’t want to make a partisan point but let me risk it—it turned out that a minority of Democrat voters said that they would stay and fight for their country. A slight majority of Republican voters said that they would, but it ended up with only 52 percent of the American public saying that they would stay and fight.

I assume that the rest would hotfoot it to Canada, assuming that Canada wasn’t the one invading, which is one of the very few things in geopolitics I like to hold. But when I looked at those polls in the UK, there was an even worse one a few months ago. The pollsters told young British people that the defense secretary said that there was a possibility that we might have to have enlistment in the UK for young people; a mere 27 percent of young people said that they would be willing to be enlisted to fight for their country. These, I don’t need to tell you, are not good results. And they bring a whole set of questions, some of which I wrote about in my most recent book. It doesn’t surprise me that a lot of young Americans wouldn’t be willing to fight for their country if they’ve been told from the cradle that their country was rotten from birth and had nothing going for it other than slavery, colonialism, and everything else. You’ve really got to miseducate Americans into this kind of self-loathing. 

But I compare this to what I’ve seen in the last six months. Actually, a number of my readers and viewers have said to me in the last six months, “You’ve changed, Douglas.” I sometimes ask them what it is they mean, and they say, “You’ve lost some of your pessimism.”

I’ve said to them, there’s a reason for that. And the reason is what I’ve seen in the Israeli public, because actually this wasn’t theoretical. It wasn’t a poll question. It wasn’t some dolts on an American campus, cosplaying being terrorists for the day. Their pathetic attempts—I mean, what’s the latest one? They’re now in L.A., doing calls to prayer. There’s a guy in New York who’s got a belly button and a crop top. And at the beginning of this academic year, he was on camera calling for climate emergency, and now he’s for Hamas. And I suppose he’s “Queers for Palestine” and “Chickens for KFC” and all that. 

I would love to drop him into Gaza, although, as I’ve occasionally said, I’m not sure that there are very many tall buildings to throw him off. But once they rebuild them, that guy will have about a day. He’ll be introduced to the elevator fast, I reckon. One of the great things about Israel at the moment is what my friend Bari Weiss said when she arrived in February: “Isn’t it wonderful to be a country where nobody gives a damn about woke?” It’s so true. Nobody bothers about pronouns. Life is too serious. Reality: it’s right in front of you. It seems to me there’s a lesson in this, and it’s not a lesson for Israel. It’s a lesson for us, for you and me, if we are going to restore countries like Great Britain and the United States of America. I spoke some months ago with an older guy in Tel Aviv who said that he’d fought in the 1967 and the 1973 wars. He said, “I owe the younger generation in Israel an apology. I used to say that they didn’t have it in them. . . they like partying. They like being on Instagram and TikTok.” And he said, “I owe them an apology. They’ve been magnificent.” And the thing is, perhaps it does require life to become serious again. Perhaps the students we see at these destroyed universities just need a dose of reality someday. I always pray that that day never comes to them, because it’ll be the biggest wake-up call anyone has ever had. But all I would say is that this country and Great Britain should be so lucky as to have a young generation like the one in Israel. They were weighed in the balance since October 7, and they’ve been found to be magnificent.

What I wanted to say, really, in closing, is that question, I suppose, of Oriana Fallaci’s. I wonder what I’ve learned about life. And I’m going to give you, I’m afraid, a circular definition: that life has to be fought for and has to be cherished. And that’s what Israel has been up against: a cult of death, a cult that wishes to annihilate an entire race, and which, after dealing with that race, has made very clear what it wants to do with Christians, everyone in Britain, everyone in America, and everyone else next. They don’t hide it at all. We are merely stupid in not believing them. I suppose for those people in America who don’t believe them, I say slumber on as long as you can.

I want to thank the Manhattan Institute and you for this deep honor. But I want to dedicate it to the people of Israel of all ages, who, in the face of absolute death cults—in the face of people who most people in this country have no idea of, can’t imagine what these people are capable of—I want to dedicate my acceptance of this award to the people of Israel, who, in the face of death, choose life. Thank you.

This transcript was adapted from a speech delivered by Douglas Murray upon receiving the Manhattan Institute’s Alexander Hamilton Award. Read Douglas Murray’s column Things Worth Remembering every Sunday in The Free Press.

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